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Once long ago reading was painful..

...then Sally Lloyd-Jones sugared the pill by giving girls a handbag of adventures. But if pink and shiny does not appeal Michael Thorn, right, has some alternatives

My nephew, Harry, six, wanted to play machine-guns in the trenches with his little sister, three-year-old Olivia. She wanted to play princesses, but she went fearlessly into battle. In the middle of the machine-gun fire she carried her pink handbag.

Even in no-man's land, Olivia would not be seen dead without her bag. I was proud to see such fashion sense developing in my niece at such an early age.

But what to put in a handbag that goes with you into battle?

"Olivia," I asked, "what do you keep in your handbag?" She looked up at me, incredulous. "My friends," she said, and proceeded to pull out of her handbag a plastic carrot, a furry bear, a tiny doll with one arm and bad hair, a strange knitted creature, a teapot and a purple troll.

They became the inspiration for illustrator Sue Heap and me when we created Handbag Friends, a story about six friends who live in a pink handbag.

Olivia is seven now and her younger sister, Emily, is six. They are now entering another kind of no-man's land: they are too old for picture books, but too young for chapter books. They are in that in-between time when it's all about learning to read. Suddenly, instead of stories they have thinly-disguised reading exercises.

I don't remember a thing about the stories that "taught me to read". But what I do remember is that it was all painful and horrid, like having injections. You have to have them because they're good for you, but no one would ever pretend they're fun. In fact, they might make you cry.

Of course, a lot has changed since I was a child. I'm not a teacher, but I do know something about stories. And I'm sure reading words on a page was never supposed to make you cry. I also know about that trance-like state that comes over a child when you say those four magical words, "Once upon a time..."

It has got me thinking: why shouldn't children aged five to seven have wonderful stories too? Couldn't we give them stories that are so engaging and funny that they would hardly notice they're learning to read?

Another thing about learning to read is all those rules. All those things you are not allowed to do, such as make spelling mistakes, make up words or pronounce them wrong.

Children love the sound of language. They love playing with words, even making up new ones - probably because they do it intuitively until we teach them it's wrong. Of course, rules are important and necessary. But what if there were a way to get children to see words as belonging to them, to see that language is living and that it's there to use and own and enjoy and play with.

My hope is that Handbag Friends joins the ranks of stories that are engaging and funny that reading becomes more like playing than work.

Sally Lloyd-Jones is a children's writer. The book is published this month by David Fickling, pound;9.99

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